On dissent, building transversal solidarity and nurturing the will of the people: A conversation with Ammar Ali Jan

In this new episode of The Polis Project Podcast Series, Francesca Recchia discusses with Dr Ammar Ali Jan the current waves of protest in Pakistan, the increased criminalization of dissent and the inadequacy of the State responses to the demands of change coming from different sections of society.
By Francesca Recchia
29 June, 2020

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Dr Ammar Ali Jan is a historian. He is also a political activist of the Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement (People’s rights Movement). He was recently fired from the Forman Christian College for his criticism of the current regime in Pakistan.

Francesca Recchia: Let’s start with your experience. Your last year and a half has been quite eventful. You were arrested in February 2019, then there is a pending sedition case against you and then you were recently fired on the ground of being a national security threat. What does make your work so dangerous?Ammar Ali Jan: Well, I’d like to believe I am not very dangerous. But there is a weird contradiction appearing in Pakistan. Those who subvert the Constitution, those who undermine its basic fabric, its values, its laws, are being seen as the protectors of national sovereignty. All the rights enshrined in the Constitution can be bracketed for this mythical concept of the nation. On the other hand, those who protect the constitutional architecture of freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of dissent — those who take that document that binds us all together seriously, they are seen as threats to the nation-state. I think it’s a strange reversal that those who believe in the Constitution are being seen as seditious – the Constitution itself has become a subversive document in Pakistan. And what we have done for the past two-three years is simply insist that the Constitution matters, we insist that this document is the binding force among the people of our country and those who undermine it are the ones who are undermining the bond that connects people to each other and to the State. And if the situation doesn’t change, more and more people who speak up for constitutionally guaranteed rights will be declared traitors. Mind you, in Pakistan we have a rich history of declaring political opponents’ traitors. The mother of the nation, the sister of the founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was declared a traitor in the 1960s when she dared to oppose the then military dictator, General Ayub Khan and since then all major political leaders from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Bacha Khan, Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, Baloch leaders, Sindhi leaders, of course, leaders from former East Pakistan – Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Maulana Bhashani – all of them have been called RAW [Research and Analysis Wing] agents. Sometimes it appears to me as if RAW, the Indian intelligence, is the most popular political force in Pakistan because all the major leaders seem to be associated with them in the minds of the military establishment.

FR: What we have been seeing since the inauguration of Imran Khan in August 2018 is an increased repression against media, against students, against academics, against activists. How do you think it is the case? How can you explain this?

AAJ: Well, Imran Khan’s ascend to power was very much guided by the entrenched establishment and for a very long time Imran Khan was a critic of this very establishment. He spoke very openly against the policy of enforced disappearances, he spoke very openly about the drone strikes, against the military operations. So, he established himself as an anti-establishment figure around 2008-2010. But after 2012-2013, when it became clear that it will be very difficult for him to dislodge the ruling parties based on his rhetoric, he started gravitating towards the military establishment and became by the end of it a mouthpiece of their worldview. And by 2015-2016 he was calling all political parties and their leaders as Indian agents, as traitors. He was praising the military constantly and it became very clear in 2016-2017, a year or two before the 2018 general elections, that the intelligence agencies are supporting Imran Khan’s ascend because more and more members of mainstream parties started joining his party and more and more politicians started complaining that they are being pressured by the intelligence apparatus to join Imran Khan. Similarly, all those who were critical, all those journalists who were critical of both the military establishment and of Imran Khan started facing the music from the State. It is very interesting that Imran Khan at this point was an Opposition leader, but the judiciary and the establishment (and by the establishment we mean the military and the intelligence) were very much backing him. Geo News channel was forced to shut down for months for its opposition to Imran Khan. Slowly this tendency, this silent, creeping martial law started affecting universities as well because these are places where ideas are discussed and by 2017-2018 a number of academics were fired from the universities. So, his whole ascend to power was very much manufactured. And then we have the July 2018 elections ahead of which the opposition, the ruling party, the PMLN [Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)] was not allowed to campaign properly, their leaders were put in jail, many people were forced to switch loyalties at the last minute and hence Imran Khan was able to get this so-called mandate. And right after his election he was immediately referred to as a selected Prime Minister not an elected Prime Minister. And later he was called a puppet Prime Minister, and the puppet of course has to follow whatever the puppeteers want.

In the last few years we have seen this discourse that Pakistan is in the midst of a fifth-generation war, by which they mean a war that is trying to influence the minds of young people, trying to disorient them, make them disloyal. This narrative naturally fits very well with the security paradigm and anybody who is dissenting, anybody who is disagreeing with the status quo is automatically seen as a warrior. I was called a ‘commander’ of the fifth-generation war and I didn’t even know that. I like the idea of being a commander, but I am not that cool actually. So they have turned universities into battlegrounds: not battlegrounds of ideas but actual war zones and that means that when you place different institutions under the logic of war, then you don’t have engagement or disagreement or debate, you have friends and enemies, and you have to protect your friends and you have to eliminate your enemies This militarized logic of control is dominating all spheres of life in Pakistan under Imran Khan, precisely because he has succumbed to this nauseating theory of fifth-generation war of dissent being sedition, of political opponents being enemies and that is why we are seeing this increasing repression in contemporary Pakistan.

FR: So, speaking of this depiction of all opponents as enemies, we can say that, for all the real or made-up differences between India and Pakistan, there is a common, very generous distribution of sedition charges and systematic criminalization of dissent. You have been very critical in the past of the sedition laws which are in fact rooted in the Raj and are a colonial inheritance. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

AAJ: The sedition law was a very strange law brought by the British when this foreign entity that was ruling over India was deciding who, among Indians, was loyal or disloyal to India. This meant that anybody who was challenging the Raj, challenging the White Man’s rule, challenging the British, was deemed to be a seditious figure. Interestingly, all major nationalist figures in colonial India at some point had a sedition charge against them. So Tilak had it, Gandhi had it, Abul Kalam Azad, Bhagat Singh and then Jinnah was a lawyer in sedition cases. This is something that went beyond the communal and regional divide. Anybody who opposed the system was declared seditious; by the 1930s-40s it became clear that the vast majority of India was seditious and the British had to leave. 

It is absolutely horrifying that both India and Pakistan have maintained this colonial law. It is meant to suppress the people. During the colonial era it was viewed as the most odious of all the laws that the British had made and its continuations means that there is a continuation in terms of the logic of governance between the colonial and the postcolonial State. The postcolonial elites deemed it necessary to maintain some of the weapons that the British had. They wanted to inherit these weapons in order to ensure that the mass movements or the popular demands from below could be disciplined and its increasing use over the last few years, both in India and Pakistan, shows that there is a very real crisis emerging for both these states. 

They are unable to respond to the needs of the public – the economic needs, the needs for security, for housing, for health. Much of the infrastructure has collapsed. Much of the ideological basis for both India and Pakistan has collapsed. New movements are emerging and today both Indian and Pakistan do not have a language to understand what these new movements mean. The sedition law is not only a symptom of the weakness of these states. It is also a symptom of their inability to even comprehend the crises that they are confronted by. They simply call opponents seditious, RAW agents [in Pakistan], in India it is ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] agents or NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations]. This entire vocabulary is made by these states against their opponents and none of these words are adequate in explaining what exactly is happening. That is where the paranoia of the State stems from. 

Last year they put sedition charges on students and on myself for a student solidarity march which was simply demanding the restoration of student unions and an increase in Higher Education budget. That just shows you that it is not meant to fight any enemy or anyone who is part of a conspiracy. It’s meant against anybody who knows what their rights are in the Constitution and who is ready to fight for it – that person becomes seditious because that person exceeds the framework, the de-facto framework established by those who are ruling us and want us to not take the words written in the Constitution seriously. They want us to take their de-facto rules, the red lines that the sovereigns have created, and they want us to take those lines seriously, those frameworks seriously. I think more and more political movements are exceeding those red lines, exceeding those frameworks and we are going to see more use of these draconian laws, until and unless we are able to redefine the framework in which our societies will be governed.

FR: In a recent Facebook statement that you released on 20 June after you were fired, you say that the State is fundamentally aiming at assimilation and is fearful of what you define unpredictable solidarities and unforeseen alliances. Where do you think that fear comes from? What is the reason and what are the possible responses to such fear?

AAJ: Part of the way states like India and Pakistan, or other colonial states, have ruled the people is by limiting their communication with each other. The State always wants a monopoly over communication, always wants a monopoly over space as well – who gets to be where, when and who talks to whom. So, time, space and relations are governed by the State and that allows the State to ensure that people do not coalesce and don’t come together to form a popular will, a general will. That’s true for the Pakistani State as well. They fear the fact that students from across Pakistan will speak to each other someday. They fear that workers will speak to each other. They fear that Pashtuns will speak to Punjabis and Punjabis will speak to Baloch and Baloch will speak to Sindhis. They speak against the division of Pakistan but they are the ones who keep dividing people on the basis of ethnicity. Every time, anybody tries to connect with people of another ethnicity they scandalize that person, criminalize that person. They know their power stems from the weakness of the people. As long as people are scared, weak, isolated, atomized, they will remain in power. The moment the people come together, form new collectives, build new solidarities, understand each other, overcome their grievances, overcome the obstacles that have prevented them from forming unity – the moment people are actually able to come together, this entire infrastructure will crumble. The rulers know it and they have a lot to lose, so they keep ensuring that people remain divided and that’s where the battle is today. We have to bring people together while the State will continue to try to divide us and scandalize us.

FR: I want to go back to what you were saying earlier, of turning the universities into battlegrounds, into actual war-zones. This very much connects to what you are saying now, because students are advocating for this kind of unity that the State opposes. Turning universities into a battleground is actually a suicidal move in the long term because the ruling elite may survive for a limited time but where is the hope for the future of a country once you attack students?

AAJ: Absolutely. It’s also stupid in my opinion because eventually if you suppress engagement in universities, then you are creating a bigger problem in the long run since university students are still part of the system at some level. They will try to transform the system, change the system from within using a civic language, using a constitutional language but when you suppress them, when you push people away from any public engagement, then you are pushing underground all the contradictions, all the anger, the rage, all the broken dreams that these people have, all the aspirations. They don’t go away. They just take a subterranean life and once that happens, then that subterranean rage can get triggered anytime and then it would not follow your civil code. It will not follow what you have already delegitimized from the books of the Constitution. It will follow its own path. It could follow a violent path. That’s what has happened in many countries around the world. When there is a blockage, when there is an impasse within popular movements, when the State refuses to negotiate and transform itself, then these movements burst out and they exceed any framework. In the long run the State is on a suicidal mission and this is what happened to colonial states that were not able to recognize that there was a deep contradiction at the heart of their system. Unless there is an engagement with that, that system will eventually collapse because it is not sustainable.

Q: Do you think this underground rage that you are mentioning, this growing seething rage, is what is happening to the PTM [Pashtun Tahafuz Movement] and the Baloch resistance movements?

A: Absolutely. Baluchistan in particular is a very sad example because there were a lot of really bright young people talking about change and access to resources. Baluchistan is a mineral-rich province that has never gotten its due share. So, there were all these movements and really bright young people, educated people, who wanted a better deal from the State. Many were killed. Many were abducted. Many were jailed, tortured, humiliated. This collective humiliation pushed a lot of young people to take up arms for a very long time. And that again led to more deaths and more misery for people in Baluchistan because that gave the State an excuse. And what’s happening now with the emergence of PTM in Pashtun lands and then this new movement of Baloch resistance around Justice for Bramsh and student resistance. It is opening up the possibility of mass mobilization and peaceful mobilization in order to challenge a violent State that only understands the language of violence but gets very confused when people protest in a civil way. Civil disobedience can at times be a more violent way of engaging with the State: violent in a positive sense of actually pushing the State back because the State is very well equipped to deal with people with arms. They know how to delegitimize them. They know how to kill them. But when you have hundreds of Baloch women leading a long march for their abducted brothers or for a young girl who was tortured or who lost her mother recently or hundreds and thousands of Pashtuns coming out very peacefully and shedding this false, racist narrative of them being a martial race – then the State no longer has the tools to delegitimize them, to fight them. And then they go back to this hysterical response: “oh they are traitors” and RAW and sedition. But people can see what these movements are doing, how they are acting, what they are saying. And it is inspiring a lot of people in Pakistan and around the world and I think that’s the strength of these movements.

FR: This transversal solidarity is also something that is emerging, if quietly, in response to the current COVID emergency because things are not going very well on that front in Pakistan at the moment. This is especially true after the May 2019 bail-out of the IMF [International Monetary Fund] for six billion dollars for the State of Pakistan, that Imran Khan had opposed throughout his campaign. As a consequence, this has furthered the health emergency because it started setting up the premises for a system of private health and insurance, very much similar to what is happening in the United States. This has created an upheaval in the health workers who got together and protested the situation and were also supported by people from different walks of life. Can you explain what happened and how this transversal solidarity is disorienting the State?

AAJ: In May 2019 after Pakistan signed this bail-out, which was the 13th bail-out, one of the requirements of the IMF, as always, was that Pakistan reduce its spending and it is always the social sector where the spending is reduced. In the education sector there were 40% budget cuts for Higher Education and Pakistan’s Higher Education was already dismal even in the region. In terms of health sector, they wanted what we can call smart privatization: they wanted to give hospitals to private board of governors that will determine the costs. Also, health workers will no longer have regular jobs, their performance will be reviewed every year. So that was a massive restructuring in the health sector. Health workers started protesting last October and it’s very bizarre that till middle of March this year, there was no discussion on health other than the privatization of health care. And this is when COVID has already hit Pakistan and the only discussion is how do we impose IMF’s diktat on the health sector. 

Eventually the debate shifted from privatization to the lack of PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] and, since there was a massive lack in March-April, a lot of doctors were being diagnosed with COVID. In April, in the western city of Quetta, doctors protested and in one of their protests, the police baton-charged them and arrested them and said they were violating social distancing rules and then locked them up in a small cell. So, there was this bizarre attack on doctors in the middle of a pandemic and a week later doctors in the eastern city of Lahore, where I’m based, went on a hunger strike. This was unprecedented. Some of the doctors went on a hunger strike for almost a week because they had not received their PPEs and our group, Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement, the people’s rights movement and other groups showed up to the hunger strike camp because we knew that these people were fighting for us. We need health workers at this stage and we need to boost their morale. If there is a war that we are fighting, it is against COVID and we are letting down our frontline warriors. The government was calling them lazy, blackmailers, all kinds of names because the government has had a tense relationship with them for the past one year since the IMF accord. So a lot of people showed up [in solidarity] and when I was fired recently, the Young Doctors Association released a statement in support, so there’s doctors and teachers and lawyers and students and then Baloch and Pashtun and Punjabi. People after a very long time are getting together, are speaking on issues that matter to them and in each other’s struggles, they are finding a mirror. I find this very powerful because for a very long time we have been so atomized that we have only thought about ourselves. But today people are seeing how intimately we are connected to each other and COVID has accelerated this feeling because we are even biologically very intimately connected to each other and we have to care for each other. It is only in this politics rooted in solidarity and care that can we start building new kinds of alliances that can finally overcome a politics of hate and division that has marred our region for far too long.

FR: Do you see in this newly found solidarity across groups the possibility of really shifting the discourse politically?

AAJ: I think that there is a lot of potential, but it will really depend on the strategies and tactics and plans that we make in the coming days and months. This is where politics becomes important, like how do we judge the situation because the system is still very entrenched. If this government collapses – now there is greater chance that this government will not be able to fulfil its tenure, it has become extremely unpopular inside Pakistan – the opposition parties that are right now saying the right things but are themselves part of this entrenched system, they will cut a deal with the establishment as it has always been the case. So to allow a new genuine force to emerge, there has to be a very wide open discussion on how to move forward. And one question is how to actually overcome suspicion within social movements. The second is, how to actually move not away from just those who are active right, but to turn the general public into a mass campaign. How to sustain it and most importantly how do we respond to state violence? I think all of these factors will decide whether we will be able to form a powerful alternative to the status-quo.

FR: Do you think there is an issue of language that separates the activists from the general population? Pakistan is a very polarised society also in terms of class, how does this movement potentially speak to all the different sections of society?

AAJ: It is partly class, I mean people have gone beyond, it is a multi-class movement. There are people from the middle class, the working class who have come up over the past few years. You know, Manzoor [Manzoor Pashteen – PTM leader] comes from a very humble background. Mehrang Baloch is this other rising star from Balochistan and she comes from a very humble background. The doctors here, unlike the doctors let’s say in the US, come from very low middle class backgrounds. And then you have trade unionists, some of whom are doing excellent work since COVID. So, you have people from different classes. The difficulty is also partly that most organizations have been dismantled historically. For the past 30-40 years all the peasants’ committees, the trade unions, the student unions have been systematically dismantled. This is a very disorganised society politically speaking. Consider the fact that less than 1% of the workforce is unionized – that is shocking. And then there are no student unions. They are not allowed. So it is 0% of students organized in unions. In such a situation there is a lot of atomization. The general thrust is dispersal. People are dispersed and that’s been the whole past of the State in its counter-revolutionary phase – to just disperse people. The challenge is how do you bring people together in such a situation. I think there is a move to bring people together after a very long time. Numbers are increasing and people are speaking to each other. So that’s where I see hope. How does that translate into a mass movement would depend on building an alternative vision, building an alternative plan that is acceptable to a vast section of the activist community but can also resonate with the general public and that’s where debates have begun. Actually today we are having a public webinar with multiple groups from across Pakistan to discuss the way forward. So hopefully we will have some good news by tonight.

FR: One last question, following this hopeful note. What is fascinating especially in the last few months is to see that at the forefront of a lot of these initiatives are really young people. They are very young. They are very motivated and what is incredible is that their dissent is deeply rooted in the value of the Constitution. So I want to somehow close where we started. Can the Constitution be the unifying point once again as it was originally meant to be?

AAJ: I think that’s very much true. It’s happening all over the world that the movements are resisting tyrants by invoking the values enshrined in the Constitution and we are doing it here. Even in India it is the Constitution that’s a weapon for a lot of activists. It’s the same in the US to a certain extent and other parts. What we are witnessing with the current reactionary rulers is that they are erasing the rights that were guaranteed in the Constitution. It is really an attack on whatever little common bond existed in societies. On the other hand, in case we are unable to defend some of those rights or the State is unable to respond, I think the movements will very quickly go beyond the framework of the existing Constitution. This does not mean that they will become violent in the physical sense but I think they might start calling for new constitutional frameworks, for new guarantees, for new legal, political, social, economic arrangement like it has happened in Chile. Chile is a good example where the movement started as a movement that was evoking the Constitution and eventually made the demand for a new Constitution, a new Constituent Assembly. This was last year and that’s something we should learn from. 

Eventually it is the will of the people that must be sovereign: that is the principle in this Constitution or in any other Constitution. And if the Constitution becomes hollowed out, if it becomes vacuous, if it’s not being taken seriously, then the will of the people will impose a new Constitution that would have new set of guarantees. For us right now the big challenge is to hold on to the principles of our Constitution but also broadly of the mass movements of the past which are rooted in notions of humanity, solidarity, notions of peace and justice and through them build a new popular will. Once the new popular will is built, then we will have the basis for a more cohesive, just and a peaceful society. 

Whether they want this Constitution or a new one will be up to the popular will to decide, but I think our task for now is to hold on to certain principles even if the State keeps violating its own written principles.

Dr Ammar Ali Jan is a historian. He is also a political activist of the Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement (People’s rights Movement)

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